15 nations sign RCEP trade pact – world's biggest FTA
Updated 13:48, 15-Nov-2020

The long-awaited Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), covering nearly a third of the global population and about 30 percent of global GDP, was signed by its 15 members on Sunday at the fourth RCEP summit in Hanoi.

It would be the world's biggest free trade agreement (FTA) measured in terms of GDP, larger than the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the European Union, the recent U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement or Mercosur, according to Rajiv Biswas, chief economist for the Asia-Pacific region of IHS Markit.

Initiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2012, RCEP is a proposed FTA between the 10 ASEAN member states and their six FTA partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India who was involved in earlier discussions but opted out last year.

Since its introduction at the 19th ASEAN Summit in November 2011, more than 30 rounds of negotiations and a number of intersessional and ministerial meetings on RCEP have been held.

In November last year, 15 participating countries of the agreement concluded text-based negotiations and essentially all market access issues at an RCEP summit in the Thai capital city of Bangkok.

The agreement will promote fewer tariffs on trade in goods, and better rules for trade in services, including market access provisions for service sector suppliers from other RCEP countries. Besides, non-tariff barriers to trade among its members, such as customs and quarantine procedures and technical standards will be reduced.

It will also allow for one set of rules of origin to qualify for tariffs reduction with RCEP members. A common set of regulations mean fewer procedures and easier movement of goods.

The signing of the RCEP agreement will be a testament to the world on the efforts to strengthen the multilateral trading system and uphold the development agenda in the World Trade Organization (WTO), Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry Mohamed Azmin Ali said at a press briefing after attending the final ministerial-level meeting on the RCEP agreement on Wednesday.

He believed the RCEP would be able to enhance regional economic integration with a vast array of the multiplier effect, saying "this (RCEP) would include, for example, having a customer base close to one-third of the world's population which would mean greater market access for our businesses and traders."

"With RCEP, the ASEAN will continue to become an attractive investment destination and a promising market for partner countries," said Vo Dai Luoc, former head of the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

The deal would also prompt the ASEAN to reform its business environment to meet investors' expectations, thus enhance transparency in trade and investment, Luoc said.

"This is a big statement for trade liberalization and for protecting the open global trading system," said Peter Drysdale, head of East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at Australian National University.

Vannarith Chheang, president at Asia Vision Institute in Singapore told CGTN that "e-commerce is likely to be a priority for further RCEP talks," given that e-commerce is a booming industry across the region and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated development of the industry, since a substantial agreement was not achieved in the original RCEP framework.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in October adjusted Asia's economy forecast to 2.2-percent contraction this year from the previous forecast of -1.6 percent in June.

"Although China's recovery can boost regional trade, weak global growth, closed borders and festering tensions around trade, technology and security have worsened the prospects for a trade-led recovery in the region," it said in a report on the Asia-Pacific region. 

Asia's economy is likely to grow 6.9 percent in 2021 thanks to the boost from expected stronger recoveries in China, the United States and the euro area, the IMF added.

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RCEP will be the most significant trade agreement in modern history

(Cover via CFP)